He lumbers across the dark parking lot Dragging his feet like bad dreams. The golden light of his youth feathered Through the leaves of the trees shading the stream. Those he came with; who had brought him, Had faded away; long-gone forgotten dreams. Caterpillars and ants fell to feed the trout, Or minnows which, in turn, feed the lunkers downstream. When he fought, as he could feel he would soon, His scarred knuckles pulverized the spots where once hung his dreams. There was a chessboard in the attic where an empty spool stood for a bishop And a plastic army man was the king-thrusting with bayonets and screams.
A bridge spanned the vast brownfield
where a long-gone steel mill used to line
hundreds of glowing ingots for cooling.
At night the red glow filled the sky like
Hell’s own football stadium.
It was over this field, in seventh grade, that I’d dreamed I died.
In the dream, I was flying above the rows and rows of red-orange bundles;
strange because at that age, I had never been in a plane.
But there I was in a plane losing altitude and crashing into the black river beyond the field.
I remember the impact, the cold water, the darkness.
Then, by some intervention in the way of things that was never explained,
I was returned to life for three days.
I went home. Saw my Mom, she was young then.
Did the dishes after breakfast as I had returned in the morning.
Went around the block and bought some second-hand comic books for a nickel.
Then later picked up the dry cleaning from across the street.
I was bored. Couldn’t figure out what to do next with three extra days of life.
This is what I dreamed as a twelve-year-old.
So later that day, I reported to a secret place and returned to the darkness.
I thought of that dream and of the sharpener who came
Bumping down the alley ringing
a bell on his pushcart, laden with grinding wheels and stones.
Stroke after stroke after stroke, humming, his squinting eyes alive,
absorbed in the task-the life-of each blade.
I asked him once, on tiptoes to see his face in the shadows of his beaten hat,
what was the song?
He smiled-a gold tooth next to no tooth beside a gap
that his tongue filled as he worked.
He handed me the scissors in exchange for the coins
my gramma had entrusted to me and shuffled on.
Maybe if I had an axe or hatchet, even a few decent knives,
I could sharpen them. That would be something.
Perhaps another sandwich or
a bourbon with a single ice cube would be in order.
And not caring that a baby bunny is eating the zinnias.
But I’ll still throw a rotten tomato at him.
And feel the twinge in my shoulder.
© TDR – 2019
Liking the feel of muted life in the middle of the night, Lori kept the house dimly lit with strategically placed nightlights and tiny touch lamps. She wandered into-then through-the kitchen after pausing to gaze at but not see the immaculate countertops in the shadows. Then through the small dining room dragging a finger along the dark wood table, feeling the bumps and ridges of the hand-hewn oak. She was headed to the living room in the back of the house where a camelback clock that had been her grandfather’s pulsed, whirred and dinged the hours so long as she wound it ever other day. And she didn’t miss. It was her home’s pulse.
Naked but for a T-shirt that was just long enough to reach her thighs, she peered closely at the clock seeing naught but her eyes shining back in the glare of one of her hidden luminaries. She gently opened the glass face to better see the minute hand twitch with every tiny sweep of the internal workings. She paced it and tried to steady her breathing-still not recovered from the almost forgotten nightmare.
The dream was familiar-not in the details but the feel of it and what it had left behind. It had been dark in her dream-darker than it could ever be in her house. She was on her belly and sliding down something. A hill, a tilted floor; something impossibly slippery. She heard a voice and felt a hand on her. The voice was Uncle Red’s she knew. Not him later, sick and ravaged, but him fifteen or twenty years ago-soft and clear. She didn’t know who’s hand it was, or why it was on her calf. But it had to have been his. It was trying to pull her back-keeping her from sliding into a still darker place. Maybe. Maybe it was pushing her. She had jolted awake. She breathed in time with the minute hand’s twitch; each breath deeper, less a gulp.
Her belly bothered her. Not inside, she didn’t feel sick at all. It was more the look of it. She thought it too round and puffy-she could hold it in her hands. Could rub it all over. Her reflection in the sliding door showed her no longer slender, but not fat. Tall and pale with smudges of darkness reflecting the jumble of black hair sticking out of her head and the thatch below her belly which she still rubbed and rubbed; an angst-ridden Buddha. She hadn’t always had it-the belly. When she was younger it was as flat as the girls on TV. She wanted that belly back.
She sat on the end of the couch like she and her uncle had, facing the dark TV. Her reflection was there too. She studied it and the empty spot at the other end of the couch which was Red’s end. She glanced that way quickly as if to catch him sitting there, casting no reflection but watching her none the less. He wasn’t there. But he was everywhere.
She thought for a moment that she would lie on the couch. Just lie there on her belly for a moment and pull her shirt up. She’d done it before-lain there exposed until the jitters passed or the weight pressing down, lifted. She’d awoken that way some mornings, cold and bare-assed for anyone who could look through the door. She had decided to do it and, leaning over, felt a chill in her belly. Then she didn’t.
She watched the goosebumps rise on her thighs and pulled her T-shirt back to reveal her lap. Was it spreading? She poked at herself making tiny pink dimples which colored then filled. “Closure” was what everyone who wanted the house talked about to her. As if there was such a thing for the haunted-for those who carried the memories of past lives with them. Like moving was going to change anything. Like she wanted to change anything. The woman in the dark TV stared-giving her nothing. Not a fucking thing.
To say it was a premonition might not be accurate. I don’t know that anything was being foretold, but it was something. As if a conversation had been interrupted suddenly. It was still dark, so the sky didn’t reveal itself but my sinuses, and the lack of stars, told me it was either raining or about to. Probably more of a drizzle-a bone chilling late November drizzle. I pulled the spare pillow over my head and flopped onto my side squeezing my eyelids shut as if sleep, once fled, could be coaxed back. It usually didn’t work.
What was it? I wondered. My eyes scanned the room for an intruder-real or imagined. The darkness must not have been truly dark-or pitch, as they call it-because I could make out the chair by the window. It was empty as it should have been but for a moment-just a moment-I was sure someone was sitting there. Someone had to have been sitting there. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But no. And there was no movement in the house. My perturbed heart fluttered lightly and I held my breath to better hear. Nope. Nada. Had there been a forgotten dream that left me feeling this way?
Sleep had been deep and syrupy-aided no doubt by a glass of bourbon around ten. But just one. More than that and I’d have stirred all night. But no, no dreams that I could remember. There was something though-like a rush of water…maybe wind through the leaves. I’d been back in the woods yesterday and had heard the winds whispering. Maybe it had stuck with me. Maybe I’d dragged something back again like a burr in the cuff of my jeans.
After thrashing about for a while-probably no more than minutes-I tossed the covers and sat up, bare feet on the chill wood floor. I’d have to lay a fire in tonight, no doubt. It was time. Always tried to go as long as possible without one. The woodpile seemed large enough but nothing worse than reaching the end of it in a chilly, wet March. Without turning on any lights I made my way down the back stairs into the kitchen avoiding the urge to look back over my shoulder.
I poured a glass of cold water in the light from the open refrigerator and gulped it; less drinking than hydrating. I poured another and reached back behind the eggs for the old pill bottle. A day that started with an edge before sunup was a day best avoided. I shook a few tablets into my hand and regarded them carefully before deciding on an orange football. I swallowed it and replaced the bottle, closing the door and sliding back into the dark. Still nothing brightening outside.
With the refilled glass I padded into the living room and sat in the recliner. By feel I found the cigar box on the table and opened it. Like a soldier who learned to break down his weapon blindfolded, I took the glass one-hitter out of the box and broke off a piece of bud that was rolled in the corner of a plastic bag. The lighter flared and I sucked an enormous cloud into my lungs. I held it only so long as the bud was burning away and took a second hit-bigger than the first. The ember in the pipe went out. That was that. I sat back and embraced the smoke for what seemed like hours before letting it out with a slow whistle.
Once, when drinking, I had told my brother about my drug habits and how I dealt with life’s stresses. He called me a coward. Of course he did-the prick. I had wanted to slap him, but he was my older brother. And bigger. And in better shape. Had I slapped him he would have been surprised and maybe laughed at me. But there was the possibility he might have kicked my ass, so I didn’t slap him. Wonder what he was up to these days? He was a major pain in the dick, but I still wondered sometime where he was.
I rubbed my hand over my face hard. Once. Then again. It was starting. The roof of my mouth was dry. My lips stuck gently together. The water-sipped like expensive wine-was perfectly chilled. My heart fluttered a bit more-the dope would do that-but only for a little bit. By the time I got back into bed and stretched out, the layer of warm, wet cotton would cover me from the top down and I’d drift back off into the black. Of course, there was always the chance that I wouldn’t fall back to sleep and would just lay there stoned for a few hours. Which, on balance, beat the shit out of laying there straight.
Back in bed I glanced at the chair once more. Still seemed to be empty, which was good, but I resisted any temptation to go near it. I remembered slapping my lips once. Then drifting away.
He held his ear close to the window. The blasting this spring up the top of the hollow had knocked everything in the house cattywampus and it was near to impossible to open the windows easily in normal times. Now, what with all the rain, everything was swolled so that he’d have to break it to open it.
“I can’t hear you,” he whispered, a tone of desperation creeping into his voice. “Louder! Please louder.”
He squinted through the wavy glass but even with no lights in his room he could see naught but shadows outside where the winds whipped the chestnut tree that towered over their little house. Even from the second floor bedroom-which was really a loft, no more’n a half floor- Jimmer felt he could step right down into the yard. If he could open the window-which he coont. He was feeling that pull down below that allus came with the visitations. First time he thought he had to pee-then found out not. Not that at all.
“Hey! You still there?” he croak-whispered, his breath fogging the chilled glass as he pressed his eye against it.
“Jimmer? That you? Who you talkin’ to?”
“You stay off that telephone with the storm comin’. We don’t want to get struck.”
Jesus, he thought. As if I had a phone in here. Then he noticed the strip of yellow light leakin’ in under the door. Quick as that, he tore the cover sheet off’n his bed and jammed it down there and scampered back to the window. Still nothing-except maybe a sharp “tic-tic-tic” on the glass which could just as well have been branches as fingernails.
GODDAMIT! He thought, immediately sorry for thinking the Almighty’s name in vain. He’d been doin’ that a lot and it coont be good. He kicked the sheet away and opened the door at the top of the steep steps up to his room. He felt proud of havin’ thunk to keep the hinges oiled so they made no sound opening.
For only about the hundredth time that day he wished Pap could have hung on awhile longer to help with Maw, but he knew near the end there he coonta helped hisself with his wheelchair and oxygen tank. Better this way, but Hell’s Bells this was a hard pill!
He tiptoed past the front room where she sat in the recliner that wouldn’t recline, her swole feet propped up on her walker. The TV was on to nothing but rolling snow and she listened to an old-timey gospel show on the radio. It was no challenge to sneak past and outside-lifting hard on the door because it too was off cause of the blastin’.
On the porch he whipped his head left and right looking for her. Ignoring the tilted steps, he hopped right down the ground. Was that a light over by the shed? Even in the pitch dark thrown by the blanket of storm clouds he could easily navigate out to the woodshed and around to the other side of it. Nothin!
Wait, though-not nothin’-cause he could see, if he looked off center, his shadow tossed weakly onto the rough plank wall of the shed. Prolly from the house he thought as he turned to look. But no, there she was, balanced on the eave right outside his window. “Goldarnit” he said trying not to cuss at a time like this. “I knowed you was out there.”
His voice became more urgent as did the pull down below. He bent his leg against the discomfort of his broomstick-hard erection pushing against the teeth of his zipper. “On man!” he sputtered as he yanked at his jeans. It was only his intent to let hisself out to breathe but he was so skinny-assed that once his pants were unsnapped they fell to the ground. He didn’t note the chill as he grabbed what was his fearfully engorged cock and commenced to work it while watching her above him. If he could only git that window open.
“Come down here” he hissed through gritted teeth. “Just the oncet!” But she didn’t move from her perch on the eave. Jimmer worked himself in silence, staring hard to get every glimpse he could of what he took to be the shimmering clean lines of her nakedness.
“You could do something here you know!” He was losing the whisper but kept his voice down just below the level of the winds. “I wisht you would!”
He thought she was watching-she was moving though. She was there-she was all there, turning for him, bending for him-right up till the moment when she wasn’t. When that moment came she just disappeared-melted upwards like smoke from a pissed-on fire and was gone into the starless black.
He made no more sounds but a finishing grunt as he spattered over the dry leaves, bending forward, vainly trying to keep the final spurts and spasms offn’ the pile of pants at his feet. Eyes screwed shut he drooled one single string to splash off his fist where his part-twitching-disappeared like a turtle into its shell.
He made no show of bein’ quiet when he yanked the stuck door open to reenter the house. He trudged past the front room where Maw, without looking up, told him “You shount go outside on a night like this Jimmer. I can hear the Nightwinds moving about. They take aholt of you and you’re a goner.”
A goner, thought Jimmer. That sounded fair. He’d buy that if she was sellin’.
Sam was a small man even among regular folk. Out here, tonight, he felt like a bug. Still though, he was happy to step out of the darkness of the tree-lined avenue into the open square where the buzzing lights cast a monochrome silver tableau before him.
He was relieved for a moment to see what had to be a man in the far corner of the square, leaning one-legged against an old wooden telephone pole smoking. His other leg was crooked back behind him, foot on the pole, affecting the rakish, relaxed look of a model in an old cigarette ad.
Sam’s fingers weren’t sticking together anymore. The blood that was left had dried and would have to be washed off if there was water or scraped it there wasn’t. He shuffled toward the tall man, one shoe on, one missing, hesitating only when he realized how large the fellow really was. Up close, he looked less relaxed and more gaunt, like an anxious scarecrow.
For a moment Sam wondered if it really was it a man he was seeing before him or an apparition leaning against the pole. Standing before him he had to crane his neck back to see his face.
“Excuse me”, Sam said, looking up. “I’ve had a fuck of a night. Can I bum a cigarette?”
The head above him swiveled his way then pitched downward carefully, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “I don’t smoke”, he said in a flat guttural voice that betrayed no accent. A streetlight glinted in his dark eyes-the light glancing off the dead one like a skipped stone-the other flaring hot for an instant, then fading.
Sam backed into a shadow away from his gaze but the head had swiveled away.
“I wanted to see if he’d give you one.”
He turned and noticed the girl against the wall. She was even smaller than he was-but not a child. Just a girl in bare feet and torn back dress. Nothing special-plain. In fact, in the light, she looked like a pencil sketch of what a plain girl should look like.
“He said he doesn’t smoke.”
“I know him. He doesn’t.”
He looked back once more at the cloud circling around the pole. She took his hand to lead him down an alley out of the openness of the square. At her touch he felt himself thickening.
“I’ve had a fuck of a night”, he said letting himself be led.
“I know. Come on.”
The apparition didn’t turn to watch them go. They mattered not a whit to him. He smoked in peace, scanning the sleeping world above their heads.
What are you even doing here? The Love of my life? Hardly. She’s in Houston with her kids, And his. When I dream of her I wake a rock- Head full of all the soft, wet places. You? Gravel and jagged edges- Broken glass Desolate highways with no lights, No guiderails. You took my heart; never given. Smashed it, killed it, left it lie. Didn’t wish you dead, but now that you are, Stay there. I’m cauterized- Like a drunk needing a bottle when once a cocktail would do- I must dig deeper and deeper to feel the Pain you used to visit so cavalierly With a word. A gesture. I’ll stab at my skin with a sharp spoon, Drive nails between my toes, Tear my hair and rend my guts to wear As braids. I always feared I would see you in hell To again be choked on your leash. But I’d hoped to die first. Go back to poling the River Styx Ferrying the damned from sulfurous shore To sulfurous shore And leave me be. I’ll see you soon enough. Fuck you Fuck you And fuck me. I’d give my left nut for the sunrise.
She turned away from the window to light the cigarette she’d kept in a plastic bag hidden in an old purse with a wooden match from the candle drawer. In the utter darkness of the house the yellow flame burst brightly until she sucked deeply and shook it out.
“Fuck!” she whispered when she saw the red glowing dot of the tip reflecting back from the glass. Could he see it? She palmed the butt next to her thigh and squinted trying to regain her night vision. There was nothing. More correctly, she could see nothing. But he was out there.
Beyond the lawn and the rhododendrons, across the property line and beyond the subtle rises that she knew to be remains of Civil War trenches that existed undisturbed in these woods for 150 years. “If you didn’t know they were there, you might not know they were there”, said the locals. Over the old stone foundation of a house gone before she was born was an oak tree. It was probably there when the old house was built and stood powerfully if charred by a lightning strike on V-E Day-or so said nosy old always-in-your-business Millicent Fenwick at the library.
“It’s a four by eight sheet of three quarter inch exterior plywood”, he had intoned when she asked him if it would hold him. Those numbers meant nothing to her, she wasn’t a builder but neither was he. Still, he said “It’s a four by eight sheet of three quarter inch exterior plywood” in such a way that she guessed she should be impressed. He had taken this sheet of plywood and somehow wedged it between the three large main branches of that old oak about ten feet off the ground and “stabilized it with three two by four struts screwed right into the trunk.” She stared at him and he repeated it; more than a few times. Could just have well been speaking Mandarin-she didn’t know or care what a fucking strut was.
“Hear your husband’s building a tree stand back off the old Warner place”, Mrs. Fenwick had said, taking the cards out of the back pockets of the books she was checking out. “My husband Elmo, God rest him, used to hunt those woods. Got more than deer back there, you ask me.”
Her eyes adjusted and she could see beyond the yard into the black of the woods. She even imagined that she could see the top branches of the oak drawn against the silvery starlit night. She hadn’t minded when he moved from their bedroom to the spare room. That was a lie-it bothered her-but it had happened gradually. One night a week, then two, always a perfectly acceptable reason: he had to get up early, his back was a little off, he “felt a good snore coming on…” Then it had become semi-permanent.
Getting used to that wasn’t easy but at least she could still hear him breathing and rolling around and, at three a.m. precisely, getting up and walking to the bathroom. Sometimes he would veer into what he had begun to call “her” room and slip into “her” bed so that they could get into some of their nighttime business but that wasn’t happening anymore.
Because now he had taken to sleeping in a fucking tree.
It was a dream, within a dream Wrapped in a memory. The streets were wet and empty- Deserted in the middle of another rainy night. Running fast to no end, but as the distance rolled out Found it easier to drop to all fours and gallop. Hands clattered along the shiny brick As a dog’s claws on ceramic. Slipping left-sliding right; Gaining precious purchase then sliding back, Making no progress. I was telling this to my Aunt Peggy- Not in her doughy middle age- But as she had been. Slim and boyish; twenty-five to my Lusty Sixteen. She leaned close, All overbite and collar bones And told me that I should. That she would. I whiffed flowers Hyacinth- At the base of her neck. You should, she whispered, Eyes wide open. Her mouth tasted of spearmint. Her soft tongue, Alive and welcoming. You should, she whispered.
(Continued from A Halloween Tail…)
He drifted off to the twinkling array of stars splashed across the moonless night above the ridge. The heavy November comforter made for a pleasant weight pressing him gently down into sleepy submission. Tomorrow he would definitely look for his old star chart to see if those three in a row were Orion’s belt or just a dipper handle. Tomorrow. He’d forget of course…it…really…didn’t…matter…as he drifted into dreamless sleep.
When he next cracked open one eye the room was still dark. The stars had scattered as Venus, this month’s morning beacon, had broken above the tree line. She gazed down upon him indifferently; offering neither warmth nor consolation, just a herald of night turning into eventual morning. But still, he found the company somehow comforting in its implacable permanence.
He had almost let his eyelid slide shut when he knew-didn’t feel, but knew-he wasn’t alone in the room. It wasn’t a sound, it wasn’t a smell; it was just that feeling that alerts a solitary person when someone enters his orbit.
He opened his other eye and lifted his head scanning the room until he saw her sitting on the rickety old wooden chair against the far wall away from the windows. She wasn’t moving and-as far as he could see-not breathing. Say what you will about Venus, but she doesn’t throw much light and in that corner of the room the shadows were ground ink.
“Good Morning, Mr. No”, she said, her voice both raspy and young-like a child with a cold. “Because it is morning, after all. The sun just doesn’t know it yet.” There was a general tittering around the bed and the rustling of what sounded like dead leaves on the hardwood though there were no leaves in his room. He cut his eyes to the sounds but saw nothing.
The ever creaky old chair made no sound as she rose and approached the foot of the bed. She appeared small and petite in the gloaming with bright yellow hair this time-as much as he could see of course-because on top of her head was his hat-which he hadn’t seen since that day at the ruins.
“Do you still wear my brand, Mr. No?” she asked. The rustling around his bed swelled and he could almost feel a breeze, or more correctly, many small breezes swirling from all directions.
“Brand?” he asked. Or thought. He wasn’t sure he had spoken. “What brand?”
The tittering got louder as if he were being laughed at and the breezes coalesced into caresses then touches then finally grabs that he couldn’t resist. He struggled against unseen hands pulling and pressing until, with a wrench and a yank, he was flipped onto his stomach. The cool air of the unheated bedroom prickled at his bare skin. The tittering laughter rose again.
He felt the bed shift as she crawled up onto it. “There it is…” she said as he felt her finger trace the outline of the tiny handprint on his ass. “This binds you to me, Mr. No. You realize that don’t you? You wear my mark.”
“Look. I…What do you want?” this time he knew he was talking. He just wasn’t sure what he was saying. He couldn’t move beyond a wriggle. Forces that he could not see pulled his legs apart. She laughed and the bed shifted again.
“No-don’t”, he cried fearing another whipping.
She moved behind him-closing between his legs until he felt her presence on the insides of his thighs.
“No whipping for you tonight, Mr. No”, she said as if reading his mind.
He felt her tiny, cold hands spread his cheeks and her body lean closer.
“No! Don’t do that…Please don’t do that…” he cried.
Her hand slipped between his legs and gripped his hardening cock. “See? Again you say ‘NO’ but this says something else.”
Something touched his asshole and his body jolted fully awake. His wail was cut short by another unseen piece of fabric jammed into his mouth. Was she wearing that scarf again? he wondered-then could only grunt as something pressed-hard, cold and large-against his anus. He cried out soundlessly feeling himself opening wide as he was slowly penetrated. He yelped helplessly as the forces holding him ratcheted tighter and heavier.
He awoke with a start, his trip-hammering heart pounding in his ears. Pink clouds were scudding across the perfect blue sky but he couldn’t see them with his face in the pillows as he vigorously humped his mattress to the screeching disapproval of the old box springs. Coming to consciousness, he quickly rolled onto his side to stop the action and looked down at his engorged cock waving like a mast on a stormy sea.
He put the palm of his hand on the thick head as if he would tamp it down as a child might a jack-in-the-box. Nope, that wasn’t helping and by the pulsing feel of the thing he had caught it not a moment too soon. Remembering, he reached tentatively back to feel his backside-then gently, between his cheeks. Nope. Nothing. What a fucking dream! He sat up carefully. His hard-on, ignored, began to collapse in on itself like a pocket telescope.
He stood and shivered then looked around for his clothes. Then he saw it and froze but not from the cold. His hat was hanging on the back of the chair. He picked it up and caught a whiff of leaves and woods and-for a moment- something sickeningly sweet and rotten. Like old fruit or meat left in the sun. Regardless, he put it onto his head and without adjustment, it fit perfectly.
There, naked but for his hat, he looked out the window at the path that left the yard and wound east where it would eventually meet up with the trail that led to the ruins-then up into the hollow. It’s a walk he would be taking later today, you better bet.
Continuing….Back to the Hollow